In 2011, sparked by allegations of police injustice, first London, then urban centres all over the United Kingdom exploded in riots. They were some of the biggest mass disturbances in the country since the turbulence of the 1980s when first Brixton rose up in rebellion, and later the wider country rebelled against Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax. Like the 1980s, these riots arose from increasing community dissatisfaction with heavy handed policing and social neglect. The direct incident that led to the riots in 2011 was the death of a young black man, Mark Duggan, shot unarmed. The riots that were subsequently unleashed in rage against the police version of events are the inspiration for events in two different but captivating stories of masculinity and friendship in 21st century London. Radically different but grappling with the challenges of young black male identity in a society that seems frequently hostile. George Amponsah’s The Hard Stop and Olumide Popoola’s When we speak of Nothing are both striking in their attention to the black male experience. At their heart both stories are about how young men negotiate the experience of neglect and abandonment. Karl, The British-Nigerian protagonist of Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing has a Nigerian father that he does not know, and seeks out to find when his mother is struck down by illness. In The Hard Stop, a documentary, we find a community that feels neglected by the state, and young black men hard done by the perception that for them and their loved ones justice cannot be obtained. The documentary follows Marcus, a family friend to Mark Duggan, as he faces prosecution for instigating the riots; it also follows the experiences of Kurtis, another friend of Duggan’s as he rebuilds his life in the aftermath of the riots. Amponsah’s keen attention cuts through much of the stereotypes of young, black men, and allows us to see in Kurtis and Marcus, the vulnerability at the heart of their story. A vulnerability that is at heart about not being seen or heard, starkly underlined by the verdict of the court in Mark Duggan’s death that his killing was lawful despite the fact that he carried no gun. The subjects of The Hard Stop are not naïve innocents, but neither are they unfathomably feral creatures. They and Amponsah connect their anger, their hurt and sometimes, desire for revenge to the troubled history of Tottenham, especially the violent death of PC Blakelock in 1985 during previous riots.
What remains after the story of anger and injustice though are men, in various ways attempting to define themselves out of a distorted interpretation of their masculinity; Amponsah’s gift in The Hard Stop is to pay attention not just to their rage but also their sensitivity; especially in showing us Marcus’ efforts to turn young men away from gang culture, and Kurtis’ resolve to keep himself on the straight and narrow, whilst supporting his family and kids. Their sensitivity is also shown in the tender friendship between both men, expressed in Kurtis’ letters to Marcus in prison.
While the protagonists of The Hard Stop are very much real people experiencing the consequences of a brutal history and incident, When we speak of Nothing, is not at all less affecting for being fictional. Popoola’s debut novel is also very richly a story about friendship and a search for what it means to be a man. Karl, and his friend Abu are outsiders in London’s (estate gang culture, and Karl is very much in search for identity as he journeys to Nigeria to find his father. Narrated in language that captures the linguistic jamboree that forms millennial speech, with text speech side by side with striking, visceral descriptions of London, and later, Lagos, Port Harcourt and elsewhere in Nigeria. Like The Hard Stop, the protagonists friend is also trying to find love; Abu, Karl’s slightly irascible best friend provides much of the energy and sense of danger in this narrative. There is a sense in which, remaining in London, he is very much more in danger than Karl is, being in Nigeria. Quite deftly, Popoola subverts myths of Africa, positioning London very much as the heart of darkness.
It is in Abu’s story and his involvement in the London riots that these stories, The Hard Stop and When We Speak of Nothing meet intimately. Both pay attention to voices often lost in the headlines of police violence, inner city neglect and social chaos. The Hard Stop is very much more a London story, whereas Popoola’s novel takes us from the coldness of London’s hostility to a surprisingly accepting Nigerian reality. Both stories have at their heart hard but redemptive stories about how despite a hostile world an empowering, tender black masculinity exists outside the stereotypes of feral children and hardened criminality.